TABLE TALK SERIES
That’s Common Sense!
by Rick Pimentel
There are so many issues that people discuss with one another that have philosophical significance. Whether it is at the dinner table or at a restaurant or at a café or in the living room or on the phone, we all discuss issues that pertain to fundamental aspects of life that are directly or indirectly addressed by philosophy. These conversations touch upon, sometimes unintentionally, ideas that significantly impact our lives. For this reason, Philosophy New is launching a new feature area called the “Table Talk Series.” This series will examine “everyday ideas” and consider how philosophy can inform those discussion making philosophy more practical to our lives.
How many of us have participated in a conversation in which someone has stated in response to something that sounds profound, “That’s common sense!” A statement used as often and as convincingly as this seems to be important. Many of us use it and believe it. Defining common sense can be difficult because there exists a simple, popular meaning and a more complex, philosophical meaning. According to Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty, the late co- founder of the Center for Applied Philosophy, common sense is the “the conglomeration of generally held opinions and beliefs, more or less well founded, more or less mixed up with error and prejudice, which make up the voice of the community — what everybody knows.” Many would read this and say, “That’s common sense!” Despite the fact that some would not use all these words, it is safe to assume that many would agree with this popular and simple definition. However, does it fully describe common sense? This is where philosophy steps in. The same Dr. Dolhenty offered a philosophical definition for common sense when he stated the following:
Common sense refers to the spontaneous activity of the intellect, the way in which it operates of its own native vigor before it has been given any special training. It implies man’s native capacity to know the most fundamental aspects of reality, in particular, the existence of things (including our own existence), the first principles of being (identity, noncontradiction, and excluded middle), and secondary principles which flow immediately from the self-evident principles (causality, sufficient reason, etc.).
This definition is certainly more complicated but does this definition, in conjunction with the popular definition, tell us anything about common sense? Thankfully, it does. First of all, the word “common” is important. It implies that all people have the capacity to have this sense. Second, the point that common sense is “more or less well founded” is significant because people possess common sense independent of any specialized knowledge or training (though not prior to experience; common sense is decidedly a posteriori). This is arguably the reason why common sense is appealed to by many people; it is not specialized. Lastly, common sense does not apply to specialized knowledge. Put differently, common sense is used to evaluate common scenarios. (That should be common sense.) If it can be possessed independent of any specialized knowledge or training, then it is obvious that common sense does not apply to specialized knowledge. So, if you hear one rocket scientist telling another rocket scientist at the water cooler, “The ambient temperature of the combustion chamber is inversely proportional to the fluid mass of the rocket propellant” and the second rocket scientist laughs and says, “That’s common sense!”, then you can step in and say, “I am sorry but that is not common sense.” (Keep in mind that I do not know if rocket scientists would ever have this conversation or if rocket propellant has fluid mass; it was “fueled” by my imagination). It is not common sense because the knowledge that these two scientists possess is specialized.
Dr. Dolhenty’s philosophical definition for common sense emphasizes the fundamental aspects of reality (e.g. the existence of things, laws of logic and being, and principles of causality and sufficient reason). Although the popular definition is good, it does not exhaustively describe common sense. The popular definition indicates that there exist pieces of knowledge that are obvious (i.e. common sense). But, the philosophical definition points out the exact components of common sense. When asked about common sense, the average person will not define common sense as knowledge of the fundamental aspects of reality as demonstrated by the laws of logic and being. This is not to say that the average person is stupid. It is probably because they may not know how to describe common sense in these words. For instance, if a philosopher describes the law of non-contradiction to the average person by stating, “No statement can be both true and not true in the same sense”, the average person will reply, “That’s common sense.” This person may not know how to put it into words, but they can certainly recognize when something is common sense. Why? Because common sense is knowledge that we all possess of the fundamental laws of logic and being. These are self-evident principles that need no proof. Mortimer Adler famously stated, “They are self-evident because the opposite is unthinkable.” It is here, where common sense finds its home. Although the philosophical aspect of common sense can seem complicated, it is really simple when you take time to examine it. Hopefully you can see that philosophy and table talk go hand in hand.